How to Tell Your Story

1. May 2014

Lisa Balbes

This post was adapted from content on the Career blog of the American Chemical Society (ACS) with the kind permission of ACS and the author.

Whether meeting someone at a conference or explaining to a potential employer how your background prepared you to meet their needs, scientists are often asked to tell their professional history. While it is hard to condense a lifetime of professional experience into a few minutes, it can be even harder to do it in a way that makes sense to the listener.

When you stop to reflect on your career history (which you should do on a regular basis), do you see that your career followed a straight trajectory, with each job leading logically to the next? I didn’t think so. Most people’s careers involve twists and turns, as they take advantage of unexpected opportunities and deal with unplanned disasters. The problem arises when you try to turn that succession of steps, each of which made sense at the time, into a single, coherent narrative that others can understand.

What stayed the same?
When tell your professional story, start with the elements that have remained consistent throughout the majority of your career. Have you always used the same techniques, worked in the same subject area or worked for the same type of company? Have all of your jobs involved seeing things in terms of how they relate to the big picture, or were they about making sure the details were correct? Finding a common theme that runs through your work history will make your story “hang together” when you tell it, and convey a sense of continuity and stability to your background.

What changed?
Next, identify what changed at the major transition points in your career. Did you take the same abilities but apply them in a new field? Did you learn new skills and techniques while working in the same field? Did you take the lessons you learned at a large company and scale them down to implement at a small start-up? Try to divide your history into a few major transitions, and other more minor transitions.

What did you learn?
Think about what you have learned in each of your career segments. How have your interests and abilities changed over time? What situations trigger your career changes? Can you use those insights to frame your career transitions? Being able to talk about why you made the changes you did and how you grew with each transition will emphasize your flexibility and broad background.

Where do you want to go?
Finally, think about your future goals. Whether you are happy in your current position or are looking for something new, you should have an idea of where you are headed. Whether it’s a new type of project in your current job or an entirely new career, you need to tell people where you want to go so they can help you get there.

Summarizing your career path in a succinct way that connects the dots for your listener is not a trivial exercise. In hindsight you may be able to see how you were preparing for your various career changes, even if you didn’t know it at the time. Once the whole story makes sense to you, you can tell it to others in a way that will make sense to them. While it won’t start with “once upon a time,” it will hopefully end with “happily ever after.”

This was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D., of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

 

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